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Thread: The Steelers Aren’t A 3-4 Defense Anymore (Not That It Matters)

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    The Steelers Aren’t A 3-4 Defense Anymore (Not That It Matters)

    The Steelers Aren’t A 3-4 Defense Anymore (Not That It Matters)

    By Scott Pavelle
    Posted on August 14, 2020

    It Comes Down To The Changes In Modern Offense

    The 3-4 and 4-3 systems evolved as two parallel ways to stop the offenses that won Super Bowls in the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. The dominance of those two formations began to change in the 2000’s; the change accelerated in the 2010’s; and that brings us to date. So what makes me so sure that half a century of nomenclature has now become dated? One simple reason: the pass happy modern NFL, as exemplified by the fact that almost all offenses use 11 personnel as their base rather than 21 personnel.

    Time to back and fill with some definitions. The rules say that an offense must have five offensive linemen on the field at any given time. That leaves room for six “skill players”; a QB plus some combination of five men at the RB, TE, and WR positions. Those “heavy” formations with six or seven OL’s? They happen when the offense brings in a 350 pound “Tight End”, who conveniently lines up with his hand in the dirt. He’s wearing a number that says “Lineman”, but he is playing a position that is allowed to catch passes, and thus the defense and the fans need to be formally warned with the announcement that “so-and-so has registered as an eligible receiver.”

    The offensive personnel packages are named according to the number of RB’s and TE’s, with all the rest being assumed (a single QB) or inferred (the rest of the players are WR’s). Thus 11 personnel means “one RB and one TE”. That leaves room for one QB three WR’s to fill out the formation. 21 personnel means two RB’s and one TE, leaving room for the QB and only two WR’s. 12 personnel is one RB and two TE’s; 22 personnel is two of each; etc. [An aside: Lamar Jackson’s ability to double as an extra RB essentially lets Baltimore create novel personnel packages on the fly, and as plays break down. That “extra” player is what gave defenses such angst last year.]

    For most of the past 60 years, “pro offense” meant 21 personnel: five OL’s, two RB’s (halfback and fullback), on QB, and two WR’s. Think of the 70’s Steelers, with Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier in the backfield, Swann and Stallworth as the WR’s, and Randy Grossman at TE. That was the central theme on which theorists created their riffs and variations.

    In the past 15-20 years, fullbacks have been replaced by either a third WR (11 personnel) or a TE/WR hybrid (21 personnel with an asterisk). The net result is less power running up the middle, and more passing. That is the underlying mechanism behind the “pass happy league.”

    Defenses responded by going to the “Nickel” more and more often. Recall that the “3-4 base defense” is actually a 3-4-4 if written out in full. Three DL’s, four LB’s, and four DB’s. The “4-3 base” is a 4-3-4, in just the same way. “Nickel” defenses increase the number of DB’s from four to five. For 3-4 teams that meant removing the NT, to create a 2-4-5 formation. 4-3 teams removed a LB, thus turning into a 4-2-5. What is the difference between those two? I dunno, but Bud Dupree has an appeal pending on just that point.

    In any case, the Steelers and all the rest of the NFL now play some variation on the Nickel defense for most of their snaps because that is the countermove for the now dominant 11 personnel offenses. The nomenclature has lagged behind because it’s hard to call the 2-4-5 a “base formation” when the “four” and the “five” (LB’s and DB’s) have started to rely on hybrid players who straddle the line. Teams used to have a big, run-stuffing Buck ILB paired with a mobile Mack ILB (Strong and Weak LB’s for in 4-3 lingo), but nowadays those two geographic spots may instead be manned by two Macks, or a Mack and a Box Safety. It gets even more fractured when you realize that the five DB’s may include anywhere from 2-4 Corners.

    Bottom line: there is no single personnel package that is on the field often enough to deserve the name “base”.

    So What Terminology Should We Use?

    Does all this create a Catch-22? We require a language to describe our defense, and to figure out what could improve it; but there are no words to describe how modern defenses are organize. Heck, how do we even define what “starter” means in the modern NFL?

    And *THAT* my friends was the question that led to this article!

    What if we define “starter” by looking at snap counts instead of positions? It works!

    There are something like 1100-1200 defensive snaps over the course of an NFL season. If we define “starter” as someone who would play more than two thirds of those (800+), you end up with this as the base defense: 2-3-4-plus-2 (a/k/a 4-1-4+2 if you agree with Bud Dupree’s position in the appeal). Two DT’s (Heyward and Tuitt); two edge rushers an an ILB (Watt, Dupree, and Bush); four DB’s (Haden, Nelson, Fitzpatrick, and Edmunds); plus two floating positions that vary according to package. NT, Buck ILB, Safety #3, Slot CB, and CB #4 all get de- or promoted to the status of “package player”, two of which will be on the field at any give time.

    How does this matter? Well, for one it allows us to take a deep breath and relax about the loss of Javon Hargrave. I adored that pick and loved having the Gravedigger here as a Steeler, but absent an injury he was never a starter; just a really amazing part of the package-player array. Same thing for the oft-maligned and occasionally oversold package players like Vince Williams, Mike Hilton, and Cam Sutton. They are all role players in the modern defense, not starters, and thus a step down in priority compared to the chance of losing a guy like Dupree. And/or starters-in-waiting if you want to take a longer term POV.

    This view of the modern base defense also explains the team’s willingness to put the franchise tag on Dupree. Say what you will about underachieving, he is a true starter who played 980 snaps in 2019. Hargrave may well be better at playing on the defensive line than Dupree is at playing the edge rusher spot, but starters are worth more than package players every single time.

    Then there’s the place we started: the ongoing clamor for a Nose Tackle. Well… look at Dupree’s appeal again. If he and Watt put their hand in the dirt, and you have a classic 4-man front. Pittsburgh got by fine in the 1970’s with a four man front, and could do so again in a pinch. The “missing” NT does not create an automatic hole against teams that want to run between the tackles. Adding a good NT provides a lot of flexibility to mix in 3-4 concepts, thereby making the defense less predictable, but that is (again) a question of enhancing how many defensive packages can be built and how strong each one will be.

    What about the style of NT? Should we look for an immovable object, or a one-gap penetrator? My analysis suggest that this is a mere subtlety, since the player in question is looking at no more than 200 snaps regardless of his skill set. But maybe we should give a slight edge toward the penetrator in order to double as a backup behind Heyward & Tuitt.

    Finally, this viewpoint clarifies why the team needs to keep focusing on hybrid athletes who can straddle the line between box Safety and Mack ILB, and between Safety #3 and slot CB. Those hybrid players do for a defense what Lamar Jackson does for the Baltimore offense. They allow a seamless transition from one package to a very different one without any telegraphing to the offensive play callers. Disguise and flexibility are the key assets once you have the nine true starters in place.

    Get used to it folks. The days of the 3-4 base are gone. Pittsburgh plays a package-based defense with nine starters, and five floaters who rotate in and out in order to fill the final two slots. Think of it that way and you’ll be ahead of the curve.

  2. #2
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    Another piece trying to sell the downplaying of the importance of a NT. The power rushing game is coming back and so will the need for a beast at NT.
    Last edited by whisper; 08-16-2020 at 04:26 PM.

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    Hey Scott your just figuring this out now? Nickle has been our base for a while. And you see this throughout the league not just here. Time to get with the program.

  4. #4
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    If they eschew a run-stopping formation too much, teams will start rushing the ball down their throats. You don't win if you can't stop the rush (unless you have an offense like KC).

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    Quote Originally Posted by Iron City Inc. View Post
    Hey Scott your just figuring this out now? Nickle has been our base for a while. And you see this throughout the league not just here. Time to get with the program.
    Haha ...

    I didn't read the full aticle ( skimmed through it) too lazy to read right now.

    At first, I thought he (AKA as the hammer) was another bozo Steeler want to be reporter. I had a brief friendly disagreement on the depot once ( importance of drafting OL early) , but he does know his stuff and I do welcome his insight.

    But your right, this information should be known to every Steeler, since the days of Shazier and maybe before....
    “I’m so tired of Le’Veon," DeCastro told reporters (h/t ESPN's Jeremy Fowler ([url][/url])) after Sunday's game. "I’m so tired of it. Let’s just worry about the guys in here. I know you guys have stories to write and what not. I love Le’Veon, but we gotta worry about the guys in here. They’re the only people that matter to me."

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    His point on Dupree is spot on though. With the increasing use of hybrid players it will get interesting around contract time regarding what salary they will command. Which should make more, a "box safety" or an ILB?


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